Priti Patel is one of the women promoted in David Cameron's reshuffle. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The Cameroon dream fades as the new right continues to rise

Less than ten months away from the general election, David Cameron’s changes are largely cosmetic.

It was superficially described as the “women’s reshuffle”, freshening up the Conservative front benches with telegenic female ministers and bidding goodbye to “stale, pale and male” old-timers. This was only partly true. Several older cabinet members were sent on their way – including 73-year-old George Young and 74-year-old Kenneth Clarke – but William Hague and Michael Gove, who was loathed by teachers and had made too many enemies (though not in the press), also made surprising departures. At the same time, the junior Treasury minister Nicky Morgan was promoted to the position of Education Secretary after just three months attending cabinet as women’s minister.

But less than ten months away from the general election the changes are largely cosmetic. There are now five women with full cabinet status, up from three (eight women can attend cabinet, out of 33 ministers). Raising that number will be a struggle without resorting to all-female shortlists as Labour did in 1997. It is only as high as it is because of David Cameron’s adoption of the so-called A-list of preferred candidates in 2010, half of whom were women. The Prime Minister has attempted to make his party more representative of society but there is much to do.

There are still only two non-white faces at the cabinet table, compared to 15 per cent of the general population. In Nicky Morgan, meanwhile, the country has yet another Education Secretary who was privately educated. Serious structural reforms and a heavy dose of political will are required to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to stand for parliament – a criticism from which Labour is not exempt, after recent research by the Guardian showed that half of the party’s candidates in marginal seats had previously worked as special advisers or in think tanks.

Underneath the media froth about tokenism, there was a much more important shift in representation within the cabinet. Out went many moderate or One-Nation Tories – the “wets” of old. In their place are younger, more ideologically driven politicians such as Liz Truss, the new Environment Secretary, who was one of the co-authors of the neo-Thatcherite manifesto Britannia Unchained. The intellectual momentum in the Conservative Party is with the new right, represented by Ms Truss, Sajid Javid, Matthew Hancock and Priti Patel. They are, like George Osborne, committed to an arid, small-state, free-market conservatism. Would that a Burkean such as Jesse Norman had a place in the cabinet.

The other notably ascendant group is the militant Eurosceptics. As Conservative leader, Mr Hague, who will step down as an MP at the next election, was a mainstream Eurosceptic, robustly against joining the euro but definitely “in”. Since then, the party’s centre has shifted rightward and he is now regarded as soft on the issue and as having been “captured” by Foreign Office mandarins.

Mr Hague’s successor, Philip Hammond (who, in a long career, has shown little interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs and speaks with all the spontaneity of a Liverpool Street Station platform announcer), has said that he would vote for withdrawal from the EU unless significant powers are repatriated. Mr Gove, now in charge of party discipline as Chief Whip, is of the same view.

At best, the reshuffle has reaffirmed Mr Cameron’s authority: he has been able to make sweeping changes to his team because Tory MPs believe that he has a chance of continuing as Prime Minister after May 2015. However, it has also confirmed his estrangement from his party’s ideological heartland: his rising stars are not pragmatic “Cameroons”, and the leader who longed for the Conservatives to “stop banging on about Europe” is destined not to get his wish. 

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496